Summary: After an alien attack devastates Earth and kills millions, Archer takes his ship on a new mission into the Delphic Expanse to locate the aliens responsible for the attack.
In many ways “The Expanse” is more of a 40 minute trailer for upcoming episodes in the revised and retooled 3rd season version of ENTERPRISE than an episode itself. Unlike the retoolings of previous spin-offs like DS9’s “Way of the Warrior” or VOYAGER’s “Scorpion,” The Expanse serves as a secondary pilot after “Broken Bow,” minus the character introductions. As such, “The Expanse” is less about what’s actually happening on screen and more about the premise that it sets up for next season. Like a trailer, it’s a flashy showcase chock full of ships, special effects, space battles, alien races, plot twists and emotions. And like a trailer it’s also shorthand for the kind of abrupt changes, many of which should probably have been played out in a more gradual transition.
Attacks on Earth have been more commonplace in the STAR TREK movies than any of the series because they imply a raising of the stakes to something so major it requires its own showcase. Like “The Expanse,” two ORIGINAL SERIES movies featured probes carrying out attacks on Earth, both of which turned out to be somewhat misguided. Two NEXT GENERATION films featured attempted attacks, which were more menacing and lethal in nature but still none of the four films or even DS9 came close to “The Expanse” in showing the sheer devastation and scale of destruction. The improvements in special effects are what make it possible but it’s Enterprise’s need to reassert the importance of the crew and their mission in the face of falling ratings and interest that prompted Berman and Braga to cut a swath across the more optimistic STAR TREK worldview of the future, as the Xindi probe devastates Earth in a way that not even the Borg had ever managed to do. Even if ENTERPRISE’s producers choose to jettison or back off some from the resulting changes to the series, the deaths of millions makes it impossible for the series or Archer to go back to ever being as naive and carefree as before while maintaining credibility.
The special effects of the probe’s attack are occasionally spotty but it’s the crew’s reactions along with Archer’s log entries that really convey the impact of the attack. Still, despite effective scenes including the crew’s first reaction to learning the news and Trip confronting the devastation at home, “The Expanse” is doing too many things at once to really focus on the effects of the attack on the crew. There’s Duras constantly menacing Enterprise and while the resulting Klingon scenes are entertaining and the space battle is ENTERPRISE’s best, it mainly seems to be there in order to present an on-going threat, as if the Xinti attack and the threat of the Expanse wasn’t enough for an audience the producers seem to be assuming is on the verge of ADD and won’t watch or enjoy the episode if there isn’t a constant stream of action. Duras’ pursuit is an important continuation of the events in “Judgment” and “Bounty” that brings Starfleet and the Klingons closer to hostilities, but cramming them into an already crammed 40 minute episode dealing with other major events was not the way to go.
After all, within those same 40 minutes millions die on Earth, the Suliban kidnap Archer for a conversation with Future Guy, Enterprise returns to Earth, Archer challenges Vulcan authority again, gets a new mission then travels for months to its destination and Enterprise’s crewmembers deal with the impact of all these events. There is a lot of good character scenes here, from T’Pol and Phlox’s discussion of their status as the only aliens on board a human Starship to Archer and Trip drinking together during the night. There are good action scenes including the sight of the first other armed Starfleet ships we’ve seen up till now as they rescue Enterprise, and the Enterprise rolling behind a pursuing Klingon ship masked by gaseous clouds in a hoary but yet entertaining revisiting of WRATH OF KHAN. There are revelations, from the first photon torpedoes to an update on the departure of the second Warp 5 starship, to the suggestion that Future Guy might be human after all. But pack a lot good scenes that never quite manage to flow into one another tightly together in a package whose primary role is to setup future material, and you have an episode that hits a lot of the right notes but never quite comes together in a symphony.
As a second pilot “The Expanse” covers a lot territory that “Broken Bow” missed, most importantly by giving us a sense of Earth and Starfleet that we never really got before “First Flight.” There are still missed details that future episodes should clear up including the question of the soldiers of what army are on board Enterprise exactly and why Earth needs an army in the first place. It also marks the diminution in importance of the Suliban, whom “Broken Bow” presented as nemeses but have now become reluctant allies at best. Since the pilot, the Suliban have failed as menaces or as characters and while some viewers may be complaining about their defanging in “The Expanse,” comparisons to the defanging of the Borg on VOY are not warranted simply because unlike the Borg, the Suliban were never impressive or terrifying. The Xinti, from the brief glance we got in Starfleet’s version of Area 51, also seem to rely on extensive makeup but it still looks more natural than the Suliban and certainly more menacing. Most importantly, though, “The Expanse” provides Archer with a sense of purpose and gravity that he’s never really had before. Archer has been a temperamental character who acted on impulse. Now those qualities come closer to being grounded by the dedication to serving a larger purpose as Kirk’s and Sisko’s were.
Ultimately, “The Expanse” is a trailer and so its impact and how we see it in the context of the larger series has to wait for the third season of ENTERPRISE to begin. It promises a lot, but how much subsequent episodes deliver remains to be seen.
Next week: Summer O’Reruns